One book that tries to explain this new method of pamphleteering is Kill All Normies, by Irish cultural critic Angela Nagle, who has established herself in the niche of alt-right-explainer for journals such as Jacobin and The Baffler as well as the podcast Chapo Trap House, which attract a young crowd interested in a socialist revival. The single greatest strength of Kill All Normies lies in Nagle’s admirable sangfroid in the face of a culture that renders many other commentators febrile and panicky. There’s a coolness to her engagement with the outrages of the alt-right that seems to stem from her understanding of the phenomenon in the context of social relations. And Nagle is at her finest linking the outrageous expressions of the alt-right to the dynamics of cultural insecurity.
In the best chapter of Kill All Normies, Nagle dissects the various strains of online misogyny — the “manosphere” as it’s called. There’s a whole array of different misogynist strains online, from “pick-up artists,” who offer to teach nerds how to hack women’s brains into giving them sex, to “Men Going Their Own Way,” who claim to secede from womankind. Like the similarly diverse and fractious Gnostic sects of late-antiquity Alexandria, the groups within the milieu converge on a central concept: in their case, that feminism is a conspiracy, against society as a whole but against them in particular. There’s a poignancy to how openly the manosphere plays on the most naked versions of young male inadequacy, exploiting the gap left by a culture that won’t speak frankly about dating, sex, and gender. These insecurities are further accelerated by the dynamics of a model of capitalism that has long since abandoned the pretense of making a better world for everyone and which has openly embraced massive inequality, insecurity, and austerity for the vast majority. The culture increasingly holds out a mirage of young-adult sexual freedom as the only meaningful reward for lives defined by ever-harder and more-precarious work. Those who fail to excel in either the social/sexual or professional rat-race are taught to internalize their failure. Places like the manosphere is where the pus from these festering internal wounds comes to the surface.
Nagle displays fine, dry humor in the face of the absurdity and atrocity of the alt-right. She refuses to take the self-conscious edgy transgressiveness of the manosphere, the “race realists” seriously. Her take on “Gamergate” aptly — and often hilariously — encapsulates the sheer ludicrousness of a discourse which expects — demands — that grown, educated adults take the politics of video game reviews seriously. But she also establishes a dichotomy at the heart of Kill All Normies — transgression versus tradition — that threatens to implode the whole project. In her telling, the alt-right is a deviation from the conservative devotion to tradition.
Unlike traditional conservatism, she says, the alt-right is uncouth, un-Christian, and uninterested in stability or the maintenance of institutions. Mainstream conservatives are among the most hated targets of the alt-right, who have invented the portmanteau “cuckservative” just for them. Nagle often juxtaposes the pornographic, nerd-culture-derived screeds of the alt-right with our image of thoughtful, sententious conservatism handed down from Edmund Burke’s day to William F. Buckley Jr.’s.
Yet that image is just that — an image, with little relationship to reality. Conservatism was never a stranger to transgression. As scholar of the right Corey Robin has argued, conservatism as we have known it since the French Revolution has thrived on feelings of struggle, loss, existential crisis, and defiance of degraded authority. Violent and sexual imagery, intentionally irrational and outrageous claims, the use of irony as an obfuscation, deliberate efforts to shock the sensibilities of mainstream society: all of these have been part of the conservative rhetorical arsenal from the very beginnings of the conservative project. Edginess isn’t a deviation from right-wing tradition. Edginess is right-wing tradition. Joseph de Maistre, the arch-reactionary French philosopher who did as much as to define the counterrevolutionary movement after 1789 as anyone, including Burke, lingered lovingly on depictions of torture and death in his works. Burke was no retiring type, either — he had little but contempt for the nobility of his day, who he saw as hopelessly passive and inept in the face of the Jacobins.
Several of the figures Nagle herself cites as examples of the transgressive in 19th- and 20th-century literature — Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Georges Bataille — were figures of the broad European right. The religious right is rife with transgressive, shocking imagery, thought, and action, too. Consider the Roman Catholic Church; that millennia-old bedrock of tradition and scourge of deviance has also served as the seedbed for terrible transgressions, such as knowingly harboring and protecting serial child molesters within the ranks of the priesthood for decades. Tradition, hierarchy, transgression, and even subversion coexist quite fruitfully in the same ideologies and institutional context.
The picture of mainline conservatism Nagle relies on as contrast to the alt-right rests largely on the domestication of conservatism in the United States and Western Europe after World War II, but this has proven to be a thin reed. Conservatives like Buckley might have attempted to soften the rougher edges of midcentury American reaction, but it’s a mistake to take his gentlemanly airs at face value. Buckley supported segregation and wanted to forcibly tattoo AIDS patients. He called Gore Vidal “queer” on national TV and threatened to punch him in his “goddamn face” — a cocktail of intentionally provocative language, personal threats, and a veneer of deniability familiar to anyone who has seen the alt-right in action.
Nagle similarly accepts the self-exculpatory claim of less-extreme “alt-light” figures like Milo Yiannopoulos that they are mere “classical liberals” with a fondness for troll-ish language. These are people who want to impose religion-based bans on immigration, who support torture and the suspension of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. Their professions of support of free speech and opposition to campus censoriousness are bunk, as evidenced by Yiannopoulos and company joining in protests against Palestinian-American feminist Linda Sarsour speaking at CUNY. That Nagle would take patently insincere clowns like these at face value is a baffling lapse in critical acuity.
Some of the issue here lies in the explanatory weight Nagle places on the alt-right’s opposite number: the “social justice warrior” liberal-left found on various portions of the internet, but with its home base on Tumblr. The “SJWs” might be the only people in the world capable of driving others to distraction with anywhere near the same efficacy as the alt-right. The cool, often-amused detachment Nagle displays in the face of alt-right provocation vanishes when presented with the long list of genders imagined by Tumblr users (Kill All Normies is only 120 pages long, and Nagle chose to devote two of those pages to regurgitating just such a list), or the rhetorical excesses of the latest campus campaign to no-platform this or that right-wing speaker. To judge by the tone of the text, Nagle despises the alt-right, but she utterly loathes “social justice warrior” liberalism.
There’s good reason for materialist socialists to be leery of the sort of liberalism on display these days online and on campus. The moralizing rhetoric common in radical-liberal discourse alienates many, is next to useless in confronting the right, and does little to address the broader social and economic dynamics that generate the insecurity and fear of which the alt-right is one ugly product. Online social-justice liberals are frequently intensely hostile toward the suggestion that there are other ways to address social inequality, or that material factors such as capitalism and class structures might play a role in oppression.
Nagle isn’t the first to note the similarities between SJW-liberalism and the alt-right. They both exist mainly online, they both emphasize cultural politics over material issues, and most important, in Nagle’s analysis, is they are both self-consciously ironic and “edgy.” The closest thing to a solution Nagle puts forward is an exhortation to pump the brakes on the sort of cultural celebration of transgression for its own sake one sees intermittently across the political spectrum. The last half of the book pushes this agenda heavily. The reader loses sight, at times, of both the alt-right and of the materialist exploration of it that Nagle promises in the introduction.
There’s a lot to be said for her argument here. Edginess is a debased coin all too readily spent by the right, and one leftists can’t trust to “subvert” entrenched power structures. But cultural explanations about competing systems of “edginess” fail to bear the explanatory weight Nagle places on them. Those who fight for a better world can be edgy and twee or they can be deadly serious or anywhere in between, and they will still attract reactionary rage. Nagle herself has attracted alt-right ire (just look at the Amazon page for Kill All Normies), despite all of the distance she has placed between herself and their bête noire, the Tumblr liberals. They can’t tell the difference and don’t care to. There are clearly other dynamics, related to the long history of counterrevolutionary politics, at work behind the alt-right (and other factors behind SJW-liberalism, for that matter). Nagle goes part of the way toward illuminating the larger political context at work online, but ultimately gets sucked into the culture-wars black hole she otherwise repudiates.
Peter Berard is a doctoral candidate in history at Boston College. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jacobin, and elsewhere. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.